Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The Historical Jesus
The Lord's Prayer

The Lord's Prayer is probably the best known Christian prayer. It forms a central part of all eucharistic liturgies. Christians over the centuries have thought of it as the actual words of a prayer by Jesus. Nowhere else does Jesus give advice about prayer as specific as this.

The prayer is found in only two gospels - Matthew 6.9-13 and Luke 11.2-4. Texts which are common to the two gospels are generally regarded as having come from a single written source (named "Q" from Quelle, the German for "source"). If so, this prayer illustrates well the freedom the gospel authors had to modify their sources according to their own theological schemes.

The two versions differ significantly. Luke's is the more simple. Many scholars think that this indicates less elaboration by Luke, and therefore a form possibly nearer to the original words of Jesus.



Our father in the heavens,
May your name be kept holy;
May everything be done your way here on earth, as it is in the heavens;
Provide us every day with the food we need to live;
Release us from our debt to you
To the same extent we release those in debt to us.
And may we not be too severely tested;
but rescue us from the evil one.
Father, may your name be kept holy;
May everything be done your way;
Provide us day-by-day with what we need to live;
Release us from our sins
To the same extent we release those in debt to us.
And may we not be too severely tested.

The word "father" is often rendered "daddy" in English. It stands for the Aramaic word abba. This is a term less formal than "Father". But for most people it seems too familiar to be used liturgically. Not many would think of starting the Lord's Prayer with "Dear Dad ..." The word abba was not used by Hebrews at the time of Jesus, and yet it was preserved in very early Greek liturgies. That is, it seems to have meant something special to the first Christian communities. They certainly thought it came direct from Jesus.

The Lukan version shows signs of a change to the meaning of the Greek word for "debt". There is little doubt that the Q version originally meant "debt" in the sense of owing money to someone. Debt amongst the very poor is an everyday reality. In Jesus' time unpaid debt carried extremely heavy penalties, such as being sold into slavery. So this was a powerful metaphor to describe an aspect of human life in relation to the then prevailing ideas of God.

Luke's version uses the word "debt" in two ways within the same sentence.  The first is the sense of sin portrayed as debt owed to God for having disobeyed his laws. The second is the sense of owing money - almost certainly the earlier meaning. No doubt the later meaning grew at the same time as did that aspect of Christian theology which taught that the death of Jesus was in some sense a repayment to God for humanity's sinful rebellion.

The phrase about our forgiveness depending in some sense on our forgiveness of others is prefigured in Sirach 28.2 and elsewhere:

Forgive your neighbour the wrong he has done,
and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray.

We can't know for sure if early Hebrew-Christian communities were thinking of this when they began to change the sense of Jesus' original words. But it makes some sense when we recognise that these communities were seeking social acceptance. It was important at the time to be able to refer back to ancient authority (for example the genealogies in Matthew 1.1-17 and Luke 3.23-38). Hence constant references in the gospels to the Hebrew scriptures. These references would have carried some weight because Hebrew people were solidly established as good citizens throughout the Roman Empire of the period.

Some suggest that the entire Lord's Prayer is an elaboration of a more basic saying by Jesus, preserved in Mark 11.25, Matthew 6.14-15 and Luke 6.37. If this is true, they are all variations of "Forgive others and you'll be forgiven".

Forms of prayer constantly shift and change, despite attempts by institutional authorities to fix them in concrete. But because this is our only clear example of a prayer offered by Jesus as a prototype, some are interested in establishing what Jesus "really said" in this respect. Of course, we can never achieve that in the same sense as we can today record the words of a person in vision, sound and print. It is only possible to know what is reported to have been said by Jesus or anyone else.

The Jesus Seminar has recently attempted to put aside all later influences on the gospel texts, including the influence of their authors. When their methods are applied to the Lord's Prayer, the following version results:

Father, may your name be kept holy.
May everything be done your way;
Provide us with food for today;
Release us from our debts
To the same extent we release those in debt to us.

In doing this, however, it turns out that even earlier instances of similar prayers must be taken into account. The Hebrew Shemoneh Esreh (Eighteen Benedictions) would have been known to many in the time of Jesus. The language it uses is the same type as the more simple Lord's Prayer. Very early forms of a Hebrew Qaddish prayer were circulating at the same time. It's tempting to wonder if Jesus might have used one of them. The earliest form begins like this:

Exalted and blessed be his great name in the world,
which he created according to his will.
May he establish his kingdom in your lifetime,
and in your days,
and in the lifetime of the whole household of Israel,
speedily and soon ... [2]

Many Christians today think of liturgical prayers as something more or less fixed. This may be because they use authorised prayer books which change only infrequently. But in early Christian communities liturgy was a flowing, changing process. Communications were poor, so differences had plenty of time to flourish. One example of this is the occurrence in some manuscripts of Luke's Gospel of the words

May your Holy Spirit come upon us and cleanse us

as part of the Lord's Prayer. It took more than four centuries for liturgical prayers to become more or less similar throughout the Church.

Occasionally in the gospels, meaning is obscured by difficult Greek words. This has happened in the words translated "daily", or "day-by-day" or "every day" and a few other variations. The word epiousios is found only here and one other place in ancient literature. Since meaning of words is established mainly by association, this makes it difficult to be exact in this case.

To sum up: We can't get back to the original words Jesus used in what we now call the Lord's Prayer. The original words have been considerably distorted by the gospel authors. But the simple form we can distill out from the gospels is probably close to what Jesus "really said".
[1] The Five Gospels, Polebridge Press, 1993
[2] Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, IVP, 1992

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